Attorney who represented 'tent city' residents to run for attorney general

Attorney who represented 'tent city' residents to run for attorney general

Jul 11, 2019

A Beckley lawyer who represents coal miners and other workers in wage, occupational health and bankruptcy disputes, filed pre-candidacy papers in June to run for West Virginia attorney general.

Sam Petsonk, who recently represented homeless people in a lawsuit against the city of Charleston, said as attorney general, he would advocate for working people in West Virginia who have seen their coal mines, manufacturing plants or other employers go bankrupt.

“Our state cannot afford to continue seeing tens of thousands of workers lose their income, and in many cases, their life savings, trying to buy back the insurance they already worked to earn,” he said. “We cannot afford for that to continue to happen, and I think it’s a shame that our attorney general has not taken leadership on that issue. I’ve dedicated my life to doing that and I absolutely believe we need an attorney general who will make that job number one.”

An attorney general, Petsonk said, should be at the table anytime a company teeters toward or enters bankruptcy to ensure workers and communities get what they’ve earned and expect from them.

“How many thousands of people have lost wages, pensions, retirement insurance in West Virginia over the last decade?” he said. “Where has our leadership been during that process?”

Petsonk, 34, began his career working for the late-Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., as a legislative aide focused on labor and energy issues.

When Byrd died, Petsonk went to law school at Washington and Lee University and began working at Mountain State Justice, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization, under the Skadden Fellowship, a competitive program that sponsors young lawyers practicing public interest law.

In January 2016, former Charleston mayor Danny Jones directed police and city workers to eject 20 to 30 homeless people from Charleston’s “tent city” along the Elk River, allegedly without prior warning or time to move. Petsonk, with Mountain State Justice, filed a lawsuit representing two of the people evicted. The parties negotiated a settlement requiring the city to create a $20,000 fund for people who claimed they lost property, and establish procedures for dismantling homeless camps. It also requires the city to give residents more time to move and offer assistance with homeless services providers.

“That case, I think, is a good example of the kind of collaborative approach to legal dispute resolution that the attorney general should emulate — we had a dispute, the residents of tent city lost all of their personal possessions in a hasty raid that we felt was improper, but we brought all the stakeholders to the table … we talked with each other, we listened to each other, we came up with a negotiated outcome that honored the needs and the concerns of all those groups,” he said.

Representing the Fayette County Commission and two parents of Fayette County students, Petsonk has also taken legal action against the state Board of Education and state School Building Authority alleging they failed to fulfill their duties in fixing a physical building and academic issues.

Thus far, no other candidates have filed pre-candidacy for attorney general. The incumbent, Patrick Morrisey, first won the office in 2012 and again in 2016. In 2018, he ran against Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. but lost by about three points. He could not be reached to comment on whether he’ll seek reelection.

Since May, Petsonk has given his campaign more than $16,000 in non-refundable “in-kind contributions” for public opinion research, consulting services and legal services.

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